Wathen’s third solo show with the gallery appears to rest within the conventions of traditional portraiture, but there is something evidently unconventional about his paintings. They are imbued with a sense of unease – recognisable, yet strange and unfamiliar.
Manner; environment; fashion; the placement of objects and animals: seemingly deliberate details which we might assume locate a portrait temporally and geographically, have a peculiar uncertainty which evades specificity. The functions of characterisation are destabilised and the sitters seem of uncertain age, time, and in some cases, gender.
Such ambiguity is present in “Hilary” where it is unclear whether the protagonist, who is clutching a rabbit, does so with a tyrannical grip, or a tender embrace. Similarly, “Leonid”, depicts a character in an uncertain composure – a question-mark hovering over the figure’s gender, and whether they are captured during sleep, a charade or perhaps even in death.
Wathen’s characters are reticent, and remain distant, alienated from the viewer. Eye contact is often evasive or vacant, the poses awkward and gestures hesitant, compounding the sense of estrangement already present in the stark, isolated settings.
To refer to these works as ‘portraits’ would be a misnomer, since they do not describe ‘real’ people, at ‘certain’ ages or times, but are hybrids constructed from a variety of sources – art historical quotations, reproductions, and snapshots.
Whilst referents are withheld, or obscured, the singular presence of each painting is resolved and confident. In this sense they evoke something beyond signification, and are about the failings of language as such. They emulate the function of memory, where details, even times, are fluid
and morphic, merging in favour of an enduring and knowable ambience. The paintings affect a relation of empathy and revive embodied memories: the melancholic suggestion of a particular gaze; a hesitant posture synonymous with a feeling of vulnerability. These are autobiographical ‘indices’ and constitute characters who are personifications of the artist’s history.
Born in 1971, Wathen lives and works in London. Earlier this year he had a solo exhibition at L&M Arts, New York, and was included in Old School at Hauser & Wirth, London / Zwirner & Wirth, New York. In 2006 the artist showed at Blum and Poe, LA, in The Monty Hall Problem and in 2005 had a solo exhibition titled The Valley Is Broken at Salon 94, New York. Wathen’s work is held in the LA MOCA collection and the Saatchi Collection, London, amongst others.